A qualitative enquiry into Chinese workers' understanding of the key psychological contract concepts of 'obligation', 'promise' and 'the other party'

Ma, Guoxin

April 2016

Thesis or dissertation

© 2016 Guoxin Ma. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

This study examined Chinese workers' interpretations of the key psychological contract concepts of 'obligation', 'promise' and 'the other party'. It also explored how Chinese workers described their implicit employment terms. Although the findings of this thesis may be context-constrained, the related discussions and implications provide general and useful insights for the psychological contract and its literature.

A qualitative methodology was adopted for the research. The sampling frame comprised 61 Chinese workers in Xiamen and Fushun, recruited by a variety maximisation strategy. Data were collected primarily through semi-structured interviews, whose duration (recording time) was between 22 and 98 minutes (with a mode of 30-45 minutes), and analysed with the general guidance provided by the template analysis (King, 2004).

It was found that 'obligation' was an ambiguous term in the Chinese employment context, suggesting a possibility that 'obligation' may not be unambiguous in other contexts either. The findings on the notion of 'promise' in China revealed that it carried strong moral significance and had emotional importance, leading to a reflection that the theoretical specifications of promise (Rousseau, 1995) had not been appropriately reflected in prior empirical research. It was also found that the immediate supervisors were very powerful 'the other party' in the Chinese employment context, implying that empirical psychological contract studies may not appropriately reflect the theory or phenomena, especially in light of the revealed complexities of Chinese employment arrangements. The Chinese workers' employment experiences revealed that their perceived implicit employment terms were below the terms specified in their legal contract, if a contract was existent. This finding was found to relate to perceived significant power gaps between employment parties by participants, which were embedded in the complex relationships between the zone of negotiability, the societal context of employment and the powerful leader positions in China. The discussion, and reflection, of these findings at an integrated level suggests that the existing theory lacks adequate theoretical clarity to appropriately inform deductive studies. It also suggests that the majority of empirical results, consequently, may need to be re-examined. This thesis concludes that the psychological contract is a useful concept to make sense of events, beliefs and experiences at work, but there are urgent needs for further theoretical developments, especially with regard to power and morality, and thus more grounded research in order to make it an adequately testable theory.

Business School, The University of Hull
Armstrong, Steven J.; Blenkinsopp, John, lecturer in human resource management
Sponsor (Organisation)
University of Hull
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